Should You Hunt a Doppleganger?: Redhill’s Bellevue Square

Trinity Bellwoods, the model for Bellevue Square

In Michael Redhill’s Bellevue Square, Jean Mason decides to track down her double/look-alike/doppleganger. One of the customers at her bookstore reports he has just seen Jean with shorter hair and in different clothes in Toronto’s Kensington Market. He reacts violently when she denies it, and, eventually is found hanging in his apartment. He’s not the only one who sees the double and ends up dead.

Jean sets out on a quest to find this other woman, who’s name is apparently Ingrid Fox, and who, it turns out, is a mystery writer.

I felt almost uniquely qualified to understand this book. (Not quite unique because my reading partner, Georgia, has the same sort of qualification.)

I can intentionally look at my image in a mirror, but if I inadvertently catch a glimpse of myself, I have to avert my eyes instantly because that’s not me I’m seeing. If I keep looking, I zone out or become dissociated. It’s as if the image is hypnotizing me. And, yes, I have had therapy. I have discovered hidden parts of me, particularly one – D, who led a life I didn’t remember. Not a very fun-filled one. A sober cult-ish life devoted to foretelling the future and trying to keep other cult-ish people out of trouble. With pretty much zero success! Knowing the future apparently does not change behavior.

Once I discovered D’s existence, I still had a long way to go before we got integrated enough that I stopped getting up in the middle of the night and putting on robes.

One thing I always knew was that I couldn’t just get rid of her. I had been assured that I was not psychotic -at great expense- but I always sensed that I could become mad if I tried to cut off D. or any of her lesser sisters.

Jean has a somewhat different problem, autoscopy. Something is wrong with her brain, somewhere between the temporal lobe and the ear. (There are several people with damaged brains in the story, oddly in the same area.) This disease causes sufferers to externalize their self-image.

In an effort to achieve integration (my interpretation), Jean begins neglecting her bookshop, her two sons and her ex-policeman (or actual police chief) husband Ian to search for Ingrid. She does this by sitting in a park, Bellevue Square, where Ingrid has been sighted. There she relates to the park’s habituées – eccentric, drug-addled, mad but lucid and just plain mad.

But she doesn’t find Ingrid. Not until the end of Part 1, when Katarina, who sells pupusas in Kensington Market and was the second person to report the doppleganger is shot. Jean is the main suspect. Only then does she spot Ingrid crossing the park. As she follows, Jean wonders if Ingrid is “the harbinger of her death”.

Then we discover Jean is actually a university lecturer who has vanished from her classes, and her husband, Ian, seems to have a problem with her owning a bookstore.

Things get weird. Jean has a mirror experience: she sees herself but she’s not in the room. While she gets closer to Ingrid -entering her home and making a gorilla sandwich for Ingrid’s daughter, and discovering Ingrid has a boo-boo in her head – she gets farther from herself. Finally, she ends up in a hospital bed, coming out of unconsciousness.

My reading partner, Georgia, said initially that she must be too stupid to understand the book. Then as we talked, she hypothesized that everyone besides Jean was really Jean. Even Jimmie, whom she breaks out of CAMH, the mental health clinic, and who goes with her on a long hazardous flight to a northern woods. There he seems to abandon her and she finds herself more than ever lost.

Obviously, the book is about identity and fluid identity at that. Jean is following breadcrumbs in a quest for herself. Does she succeed? Maybe the next book in this three part series Modern Ghosts will tell us.

I am a little worried about Michael Redhill, considering what happens to Inge Ash Wolfe in the novel, since that is his pseudonym when he writes mysteries. Maybe he just integrated Inge and Michael and all will be well with one author identity.

Bellevue Square must mean something. It won the Giller prize of $100,000. Perhaps Georgia, D and I aren’t up to the job after all.

Full Disclosure: Initially, I published Never Tell, my e-memoir, under the pseudonym of Joyce Hood, as I did this blog. I have reverted to Joyce Howe, now that all the cult-ish types are either gone or toothless.

Coming soon to an Amazon near you Hour of the Hawk, a mystery by Joyce Howe



The Great Loneliness

Churchill called it the Black Dog

Churchill called it the Black Dog

The great loneliness fell upon me without warning.

True it was Saturday night, the loneliest night of the week, according to Sammy Cahn. True I had just watched Piper’s boyfriend break up with her on the phone, after dissing many of her fellow inmates on NPR and telling her who actually turned her in. True Jamie Fraser,s cousin, Simon, had just died of a musket wound, but Jamie had gone to the British lines under a flag of truce to bid him goodbye in Gaelic. Still it was very sad. I hadn’t spoken to another human being all day. I had phoned but everyone was out. The sky had been heavily overcast when I opened the curtains at 8:30, there was ten minutes of sunshine around noon, but at 3 p.m., I closed them against the gloom.

I shut off the iPad and An Echo in the Bone. I disappeared the TV and sat down on the couch. Winter loomed, months of lost light and cold, days of being shut in by ice and snow. I didn’t even get to my impending mortality before one of the women upstairs broke down, crying “it’s not funny”. I got up to get a glass of water and dropped one of my favourite glasses onto a pyrex bake dish soaking in the sink, smashing it into seven sharp pieces. As I put the wrapped shards into the garbage, the other upstairs resident drove away.

Right, you can feel the great loneliness even if you have a spouse. I knew that. I had felt that lonely before my husband left.

You can feel it in the midst of your family. When I first found myself suddenly on Pine Mountain, I would sit in bed with the curtains open, watching the steep wooded slope, the moon waning above. I was longing for home and the familiar, my no-view first floor flat. If I had known that the family emergency would keep me on the mountain for five months… I didn’t and I fell asleep before the loneliness got well established.

Usually, the year end holidays keep it at bay at least until mid January. You can armour yourself against it even then. I can usually con myself that winter is manageable until a month later, at which time I begin to snivel and consider throwing myself down in a tantrum, but unobserved tantrums are over-rated.

This particular bout of great loneliness follows upon the great good fellowship of family achievement. Four of us together handled a serious illness and a traumatic change in an elder’s life. Elder even than me, which is very elder indeed. In the last five weeks, we broke through to a relaxed and healing companionship. We were going to live after all.

Then I had to come home. Not only did I need to come home. They needed me to. Marriages go better without mother and elders need to feel self-sufficient.

My brother rushed from Brussels to help me make the transition from sunlight and altitude to gloom and sea level. He took one look at me, declared I was not destroyed by my ordeal as he expected. He didn’t actually have to save my life this time. If I had gone to Brussels, as I did last Christmas, I would have been his chief concern, feted by his many friends and his family. Here he has to be shared. This weekend is someone else’s turn.

I used to think I could fight the great loneliness by sheer willpower, by talk therapy, journaling, acupuncture and long walks, identify the aberrant mental attitude and contradict it. Stick up post-its with affirmations on the bathroom mirror. It was exhausting. Now I take psychotropic drugs.

But it’s a long game. I am old enough to know just how long.

Sure, I need to feel needed, as Orange is the New Black has just assured me and for the present, I am not. I wasn’t needed for years, but I’m glad I persisted until I was. Lives depended on it. So here I am again, under-needed and sulking about it.

In fact, old bodies need to rest at this time of year, so home needs to turn into a cave for long sleeps. It is a time to turn away from the outer darkness to the light within.

Having said that I see that the moon is full.

full moonmtn


A Change Would Do You Good
Cheryl Crow’s song of the same name
black &white wallI flew back to Toronto on Monday and met my sister Georgia for dinner on Wednesday. I ordered Guinness. She had never known me to order beer. I felt like saying, “It’s not beer. It’s Guinness.” She had not expected that change, but she liked my new hair cut.

Blake, my ex-husband, took me out for dinner Friday. He made no comment when I ordered Honker’s Ale from Goose Island, but he did tell me I looked younger. True, I was tanned from 150 days of sun at 5,500 ft in California, where darkness and silence led me to sleep 10 or 11 hours a night. And I had spent hours sitting beside our patient reading while someone else made dinner. The last seven weeks as recovery proceeded were particularly relaxing.

On Friday, I decided that I hated my minimalist decor and began hanging all the pictures in storage, including a wall devoted to the family and another of Georgia’s colorful paintings of houses. This means that I am giving up on feng shui. I’m not supposed to have red, a  fire element, in my living room during the year of the horse. Georgia’s paintings are full of red. Besides feng shui wasn’t doing  any good. My year has had a deal of bad luck. Our patient had also used feng shui which did not protect her from recession, loss or extremely grave illness. Be that as it may, I prefer now to be creative and bask in the warmth of family fire.

Roberta's wallAt my desk, I rounded up all the receipts I have assiduously saved my entire life and trashed them. I have lived altogether too carefully. During the five months I was away, I didn’t get my mail, of course. I didn’t even listen to the messages on my land line until a month before I left and I couldn’t receive calls because my cell phone got no reception. There was absolutely nothing in the mail or in the messages that was important. Well, there was a thank you note for funeral flowers, pretty much a dead issue.

During my mountain sojourn, I talked about the cold as fall drew on and I adapted to cabins heated in the old way by wood or more modern pellet stoves, both of which meant cold mornings. I have hated being cold all my life. For years, I have included the weather at the top of my daily journal entries. Now I have stopped. At first, I glanced at the thermometer outside my kitchen window. But I’ve stopped doing that as well. I assume that for the foreseeable future it will be below freezing. Snow, ice and wind will be apparent when I open the curtains. What difference does it make? I am going to wear thermal underwear, a heavy sweater, a sheepskin hat and a long down coat whenever I go out. I don’t need to hear a forecaster scaring me silly.

Georgia and her friend, the people upstairs, Blake, my brother on the line from Belgium and others who have called have eased me back into life in Toronto. Not everyone has answered my “I’m-home call”. I am sad, but by their deeds, ye shall etc.

So out of a traumatic and potentially tragic situation, has come new life. As Aunt Mae would say, “Ain’t that grand?”